Wednesday, September 28, 2005

What Does it Mean to "Be Critical" in Studying the Historical Jesus

In the hope of sparking some discussion over the issue, i have decided to pose the question:

What does it mean to be "critical" in histoical Jesus studies and biblical studies in general?

The major issue I see here, and which has called fourth this post, is the question whether, to be "critical" do we need to assume a "skeptical" stance towards the texts and/or the authors? Does this mean assuming historical innaccuracy? If so, do we need concrete reasons for doing so? This may, although not necessarily, concerns the issue of burden of proof.

When I think of being critical, i think in terms of not being immediately trusting of ones own or anothers understanding, but testing its truthfulness or accuracy. When this comes to studying the historical Jesus, this works on two fronts: (1) testing my own and others interpretations of the primary data (directly concerning Jesus [e.g. gospels] and background data [e.g. other Jewish Literature]), (2) testing the primary data for its truthfulness or accuracy. Both of these are vital, the circumstances surrounding the latter, however, make it a tenuous task with tentative results.

How to go about the latter, which should of course be done first, is what concerns me the most. Inasmuch as being critical means not being immediately trusting, but testing, there are many reasons that suggest this process should not be taken when approaching each and every individual tradition concerning Jesus.[1] If one wishes to assume a stance of either trust or distrust towards the traditions (in terms of historical value) before testing them, one must have reasons to do so. And what I would argue is that we should take a stance of trust towards the individual traditions in the canonical gospels. But this is a stance we should take subsequent to the first stance of not being immediately trusting, but testing. This may be clearer if I outline it in the following steps:
  1. Our default stance is "critical", in that we do not immediately trust or distrust our sources (as wholes), but we "test" them.
  2. The results of our testing lead us either to a stance of general trust towards each source as a whole (e.g. the gospel of Mark), or one of general distrust.
  3. If distrust, then certain criteria need to be employed to establish the probable accuracy or authenticity of each individual tradition before it can be used in reconstructing the Jesus of the past. But if trust is established as the general stance towards a source, then the criteria need not be employed for reconstruction to take place.
Now it should be questioned what justifies the claim that we should first determine whether to trust/distrust the sources as wholes (i.e. a gospel), rather than the normal approach of judging each individal tradition indipendently. Firstly, the latter approach assumes an answer to the former, whether recognized or not. The criteria of authenticity assume various things about early Christianity, the transmission of traditions about Jesus, and hence the nature of the canonical gospels in terms of their composition, purpose, genre, etc. In using the criteria then, one is working according to these assumptions whether one desires to or not, for they undergird the criteria.[2] What I suggest, is that many of the judgments that undergird the criteria are false.[3] Building upon more probable positions concerning early Christianity, transmission of traditions, and the nature of the canonical gospels, I suggest that we may take a stance of general trust towards the gospels, and hence the individual traditions they contain.

Thus, we are being "critical", but not aligning this with extreme skepticism or distrust. It is helpful to see it in terms of an activity rather than a stance.

The objection may also be raised that there is no middle position between "trust" and "distrust", and that to test something is to betray a "distrust" for it. I do wish to suggest a middle position however, because I want to make a distinction between two stages in the process, and reserve the terms trust and distrust for the second stage.

[1] The seperating of the present tradition (i.e. each gospel) into smaller ones (i.e. sayings, events) of course reflects the conclusions regarding questions of composition and transmission.
[2] Stanley Porter points out how the efforts to develop the "criteria of authenticity" corresponded with the growth of form criticism which is on the demise for good reasons. ("Reading the Gospels and the Quest for the Historical Jesus", 35, 49-50, 53, in Porter, Reading the Gospels Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 27-55)
[3] One should consult both Bauckham, The Gospels for All Christians, and Lemcio, The Past of Jesus in the Gospels, as well as Porter (ed.) Reading the Gospels Today. Particularly, McDonalds essay, "The Gospels in Early Christianity: Their Origin, Use, and Authrotiy", 150-178

No comments: